Political Focus: Do not overlook the importance of unions in resolving the government shutdown

Much can be said about the resolving of the month-long government shutdown, and a lot of opinion pieces are still focused on President Donald Trump’s failure in “making a deal” for his border wall. Pointing out Republican failures to fund a border wall is all well and good, but not much coverage is focused on the importance of labor unions in ending this hostage situation. And important they were.

The biggest story started getting coverage near the end of the shutdown — the effect the shutdown had on air travel and the growing lines at TSA security points. By Jan. 15, TSA officers that were working without paychecks finally started calling in sick by the droves. Their absences only got worse as they were asked to continue working without pay a month into the shutdown.

This is where the labor unions really made their importance known. On day 33 of the shutdown, Jan. 23, the presidents of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Air Line Pilots Association and Association of Flight Attendants released a joint statement about how the shutdown was affecting flight safety.

Some of the more important lines include how these unions are concerned that “in our risk averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break,” and how any further shutdown would make the safety of all who were flying unknown.

My description of the shutdown as a hostage situation was not just a clever turn of phrase. Every government worker, from the TSA security agents and air traffic controllers to the janitors for government buildings, were all held as political pawns for no real gain. These three facets of the flight industry were just lucky enough to have organizations available to speak for them and make Republican politicians aware of the real damage their power grab was doing.

These three union leaders even voiced their concern and support for other government workers in their joint statement. These unions were critical in moving the discussion forward and showing the general public the real damage the shutdown was doing to the common worker.

I get unions are not the most powerful groups in the nation, due to a multitude of factors that cannot be explained here. But this is a statement that showed what they could do to protect the rights of workers in many other facets of life and business. Their importance here in focusing the media’s attention on the suffering workers and sending an ultimatum to the government was critical in resolving this blockade.

The shutdown may be over, but this war is not. The most recent stipend for the government budget only lasts into mid-February, and if there is once again an impasse in negotiations on Capitol Hill, then we might find ourselves in the same place this month.

At the very least, let this be a lesson in the importance of your labor unions. They were important this month, and will continue to be so in the future no matter what.